Reflections on Charlottesville, Political Violence, and False Equivalencies

Zack Ford I Race & Ethnicity I Analysis I September 1, 2017

The violence in Charlottesville Virginia at a "unite the right" rally that resulted in one death is being condemned across the political spectrum. Very few are willing to do anything but denounce violence that results in death. Perhaps this is our "default" moral position. It is easy to say that such violence is stupid and has no place in America today. It is much more difficult to understand why people put their lives on the line for such "stupid" things in the first place.

An outright denunciation of violence implies that all violence is preventable. The common belief is that if we understand what the "cause" of the violence was, we can prevent it from occurring in the future. Regarding Charlottesville, the cause was a "unite the right" rally, which, at least in theory, attempted to unite different right-wing factions and preserve the monuments that constantly remind us of the history of subjugation of black and brown people upon which this country is built and of their continuing second-class citizenship. In practice, this was carried out by flying Neo-nazi flags and propaganda and obsessively performing the "Heil Hitler" salute, all while provoking physical violence. Violence erupted when students and residents decided this type of behavior was not welcome in their community. So, if the racist rally never was allowed to occur, the violence would have never erupted and the loss of life could have potentially been prevented. Anyone who wishes to prevent this type of violence from unfolding in the future must recognize that the racist slurs and hateful sentiments which are inextricably linked with such groups are the catalyst of the violence that occurred, and that such forms of expression must be silenced to prevent future violence.

Of course, the counter point is that if alt-right, neo-nazi groups are to be silenced then groups such as Black Lives Matter must also be silenced. Unfortunately, it is difficult for many so-called defenders of equality to recognize the conflict between this position and the notion of equality itself. It is somehow controversial to many defenders of human life to argue that Black Lives Matter should be allowed to march, protest, and rally, while groups such as the KKK should be silenced and suppressed. While the equivocation of Black Lives Matter and the alt-right is proven false by historical and social conditions, the fact that it continues to surface among large parts of the white population when events like this occur, it is worth returning to -- even if it requires beating a dead horse.

White people struggle to see beyond the notion that both Black lives Matter and the Klan are "violent" because they commit acts of violence. While this might be true according to a very narrow and particular standard of the term "violence" itself, we must consider the different types of violence each group commits. First off, is it worth pointing out that it is perfectly legitimate for members of the Klan to march as they did today in Charlottesville with loaded assault rifles without being hassled by police, or should I say, while the police allowed them to march with such weapons? It is unquestionable what would happen if the movement for Black Lives showed up with guns. Furthermore, after the civil war, the Klan was declared a terrorist organization and the state governments called out the militia when the Klan surfaced. Klan speech was not permitted as "free speech" since the limitations of free speech prevent direct threats of violence, which the Klan has always issued. Beyond the unequal power dynamic is the fact that the Klan aims to commit violence towards any non-European or non-white "other" while Black lives matter aims to correct the injustices of the structures and institutions that perpetuate oppression -- towards the police that target them for looking like "thugs" as if thugs look a certain way, towards the economy that deprives them of living a decent life, towards the laws and regulations that do not grant them the same rights, and towards the entire system under which they find no representation. Considering the history of America, can such actions be considered violence? Is breaking a window or burning a car the same as public hangings and slavery? If violence is the intention to harm someone, then these actions are not "violent" but are merely attempts to correct prior injustices. Insofar as they do not cause physical harm, but instead bring more freedom and equality, they cannot be considered violent.

The so-called "violence" of the movement for Black Lives is nothing more than a rejection of the willful ignorance towards the ways in which the mechanisms of the state function to perpetuate white supremacy. It is an attempt to correct the ignorant beliefs that do not simply remain beliefs, but are rather transformed into policies which have real material consequences for marginalized people. In other words, it is directed not towards people who do not look like them, but to people who hold these beliefs without recognizing their material impact. Of course, to white consciousness it will feel as though the movement for Black Lives is perpetuating violence against them for being white. The point is that America is a country built on the enslavement and oppression of black people, and this bloody history conditions the way we experience the world. The feeling of exclusion that pervades white consciousness when facing movements such as Black Lives Matter is also a product of that same history. For white people, it might feel as though Black Lives Matter is perpetuating violence towards them as individuals, but the point is that it is impossible to make a judgment about violence without taking the history of conquest and enslavement into account. Such a judgment would presuppose that experience is "neutral" and untainted by historical conditions. We know, however, that individuals experience the world in fundamentally different ways and to project some external standpoint is not only intellectually dishonest, but shows the unwillingness of white people in certain circles to think outside of themselves in attempt to absolve them of any culpability. When history is taken into account, the label of "violence" pasted to the actions taken by the movement for Black Lives simply disintegrates.

Many are comfortable condemning violence outright, but this position is in contradiction with equality. To condemn violence outright, one must either deny that structural racism exists or equivocate Black Lives Matter with the alt-right on the basis that both are groups attempting to secure racial supremacy. The implication is that the existing society is equal, and that any attempt to disrupt this equality from either group should be condemned outright. Along with historical injustice, the social scientific consensus is that deep structural inequalities - along racial lines - pervade contemporary society. It is therefore clear that Black Lives Matter and the alt-right are not operating in a "neutral" dynamic. The existing power relations are conditioned by history and the alt-right is clearly starting from a historically advantaged position. Thus, to advocate equality, the rational solution is to denounce the alt-right and support the movement for black lives.

Roy Brooks describes this situation as a poker game. Two players at the table, one white and one black, have been playing a single poker for four hundred years. The entire time the white player has been cheating and has acquired a substantial amount of chips that allows him to push the black player around, despite having poor cards. One day the white player admits that he has been cheating and decides that he is no longer going to do so. From here on out he wants the game to be fair. Astonished, the black player asks, "Well, what are you doing to do with all those chips?" The white player responds, "Keep them for the next generation, of course!" Although the white player claims he wants the game to be played fairly from here on out, he is unwilling to distribute his chips equally to the other player and thus is unwilling to relinquish the power dynamic that plays in his favor. While the white player seems to be advocating for a fair and equal poker game, his unwillingness to split the chips shows that he is merely paying lip service to the notion of fairness. For the game to be played fairly, both players have to start from a neutral position which is undermined by the white player maintaining possession of his chips (Roy Brooks, Atonement and Forgiveness p. 36).

Many white people would consider redistributing the chips an act of violence. After all, they are not responsible for their ancestors cheating, so they should be able to keep the chips that have been acquired throughout history. They should not pay the price if they themselves did not commit the action. To hold them responsible for something they didn't do is perceived as an act of violence in itself. Of course, the redistribution of power (through reparations) will appear as an act of violence only because the power structures do not affect white people in the same way as it does minorities. White people are ignorant of the empirical fact that the existing power structure disproportionally impacts minorities not merely in terms of beliefs, but in terms of material consequences. Furthermore, this position is fundamentally incompatible with fairness and equality and glaringly ahistorical.

That the existing power structures function to maintain white supremacy is not a belief or an idea, but is rather an empirical fact about our social and political reality. It is the duty of white people to not only grasp this reality but to fight against it in the name of equality, or to accept being labeled a fascist. Part of this struggle is suppressing the very hate groups and their rhetoric that led to this un-level playing field in the first place. It is simply impossible to refrain from denouncing white supremacist groups while defending equality. If one truly hopes to achieve a social reality where all people are equal, then it is our duty not to allow such hate in our communities and to actively fight against it. If this results in broken windows and burning cars, it is the responsibility of the defenders of equality to understand that such actions are not "violent" insofar as they are not directed at sentient beings, but the power structures that suppress the freedom of sentient beings who have historically been marginalized. These structures are the original purveyors of violence and continuously impede the advance toward equality.